School is in session

Houston college's $60 million energy tech center debuts in Pasadena

Today starts classes in San Jacinto College's new center. Photo via sanjac.edu

San Jacinto College is gearing up to open the Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology at its main campus in Pasadena — a $60 million project designed to bolster the Houston area's petrochemical workforce.

On August 21, the community college hosted media tours of the Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology (CPET). The center will welcome more than 2,800 students August 26 and host a grand opening September 18. The college broke ground on the 151,000-square-foot center in September 2017.

At CPET, future and current petrochemical workers will learn about process operations, troubleshooting, nondestructive testing, instrumentation, and myriad other aspects of the industry. In all, CPET will offer 75 courses. The center's highlights include an 8,000-square-foot glycol distillation unit, 35 labs, and 19 classrooms. San Jacinto College bills the center as the largest petrochemical training site in the Gulf Coast region.

"Four years ago, a team came together from San Jacinto College and the East Harris County Manufacturers Association to put together a long-term plan for workforce development," says Jim Griffin, associate vice chancellor at San Jacinto College and senior vice president of petrochemical, energy, and technology. "The Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology was part of that plan and is now a reality."

Griffin says the curriculum, classrooms, and labs were "designed and influenced" by the petrochemical industry.

Among CPET's more than 20 partners are:

  • Emerson, which donated more than $1.3 million worth of services and equipment.
  • INEOS Olefins & Polymers USA, which contributed $250,000 in cash.
  • Dow Chemical, which donated $250,000 in cash.

All three of those employers — and many others in the region — depend on schools like San Jacinto College to contribute to the pool of highly trained workers in the petrochemical sector.

"We expect to see a higher-than-normal level of retirements over the next five plus years; rebuilding our workforce is critical at this time," Jeff Garry, Dow Chemical's operations director in the Houston area, said when his company's CPET donation was announced. "The need to train and adequately staff our assets will continue to be a pressing concern. As the labor market becomes more competitive for talent, we understand the importance to attract and retain highly skilled and educated workers."

With four campuses in Harris County, San Jacinto College promotes itself as a training hub for the country's largest petrochemical manufacturing complex, featuring 130 plants and employing about 100,000 people. CPET will serve as the centerpiece of that hub. Overall, the community college says it "plays a vital role in helping the region maintain its status as the 'Energy Capital of the World.'"

PetrochemWorks.com — a petrochemical career initiative whose backers include JPMorgan Chase & Co., the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, and the East Harris County Manufacturing Association — says the local petrochemical industry will need 19,000 more skilled workers annually over the next three to five years.

"Chronic shortages of skilled labor are increasing costs and schedules and resulting in declining productivity, lower quality, more accidents, and missed objectives," according to Petrochemical Update, a news website.

Although robots are on the rise in many industries, Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who's an energy and technology expert, believes that as petrochemical companies increasingly turn to automation, productivity will go up, ultimately creating more jobs — not fewer.

"In large part," Mills writes, "it's desperation, not an infatuation with tech or cost savings, that drives employers to deploy technologies that amplify the capabilities of the employees they have and can find. It is a common misconception to think that automation is always cheaper than using labor."

Patrick Lewis co-founded BBL Ventures that helps connect energy companies to startups that have innovative technology solutions for their pain points. Courtesy of Patrick Lewis

The energy industry is at an inflection point. In order to compete, oil and gas companies are really focusing on innovation and engaging startups. That's where Patrick Lewis comes in.

Lewis, co-founder of BBL Ventures, has been a tech investor in the Houston innovation ecosystem for about 25 years, and he started seeing an opportunity to help large companies identify their pain points and connect them with startups that have the technology to design solutions. He created BBL Ventures — and an accelerator for its portfolio companies, BBL Labs out of Station Houston — to become a matchmaker of sorts for big corporations and the startups that can help them stay competitive.

"At our core, we're an investment firm, but our mission statement is to be the innovation partner for the energy and natural resources industry," Lewis says on the fourth episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The key element to BBL's model is the reverse-style pitch. Rather than hosting a pitch competition with a wide range of energy tech startups, BBL teamed up with ExxonMobil earlier this year and identified two specific robotics problems and called for startups to pitch solutions.

After the success of the reverse pitch, BBL hosted an Emerging Technology Symposium at The Cannon last month. The event brought together individuals on both sides of the table — the corporates and the startups — further bridging the gap between the two.

Lewis discusses BBL's past success and future plans, as well as what keeps him up at night as a tech investor in Houston on this week's podcast. Check it out below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.